Susan Sgorbati is a professional mediator and educator whose creative research has led to collaboration across disciplines and borders as both an artist and a driver of social change.
Susan Sgorbati became the second director of the Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action in July 2015. She brought to the position her extensive experience with conflict resolution, her transdisciplinary and collaborative approach to research and problem solving, and her dedication to finding solutions to urgent social problems proactively.
Since her appointment, she has expanded the Center’s reach through a number of initiatives, generative tutorials, projects, programs, conferences, convenings, residencies, and opportunities. She has invited others openly, from the College and beyond, to submit proposals for potential projects; has supported and assisted many students, faculty, and guests with their initiatives, project development and implementation; and has coordinated fundraising efforts. She has connected countless individuals and organizations, locally, statewide, nationally and internationally, crossing multiple boundaries and encompassing myriad cultures. Part of her work in CAPA has been to assist international students and faculty with political asylum, visa challenges, and adjusting to the Bennington College culture. Often melding fields of study, Sgorbati has taught a wide range of courses, collaboratively and on her own, and has contributed numerous initiatives, all of them emphasizing creative, collective process in the active search for solutions.
Sgorbati’s work in all of the above is deeply rooted in her career-long focus on the dynamics of group improvisation, starting with dance and merging into research on its relationship to the science of complex systems, which she named Emergent Improvisation (EI); from this, Sgorbati went on a national tour, wrote a book and collaborated on a film with Elliot Caplan. These studies, in practice and in theory, continue to assist in the discovery of Emergent Structuring, Sgorbati’s term for changes in group dynamics and shifts in systems design.
Sgorbati speaks of improvisation as a collaborative and generative process of discovery; new kinds of order can emerge, not because they are preconceived, externally imposed or designed, but because they are the products of dynamic, self-organizing systems operating in open-ended environments. To understand this phenomenon further, particularly as it is found in natural systems, she worked with two visionary scientists: Dr. Gerald Edelman, Nobel Laureate and founder/director of the Neurosciences Institute (in La Jolla, California), where Sgorbati was in short residencies for three consecutive years; and Dr. Stuart Kauffman, MacArthur Fellow and considered by many as “the father of complexity.” Kauffman was in residence at Bennington College and continues to work with Sgorbati.
Sgorbati’s study of the complexity paradigm has influenced her work with conflict resolution and social change. She is a professional mediator in private practice and has mediated cases for the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the Green Heron Associates in Conflict Resolution and Collaborative Projects, among others. Since 1996, she has mediated cases for environmental and community disputes as well as for businesses, not-for-profits, and educational institutions.
Sgorbati founded, in 2001, and still directs the Conflict Resolution Program and curriculum at Bennington. She founded and co-directed, with Daniel Michaelson, Quantum Leap (1999-2019), an organization that reconnected more than 3,000 elementary, middle, and high school students to their education in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union who were truant, at risk, or had dropped out of school.
Currently, Sgorbati is focused on several projects. She has co-founded, with Dr. Asim Zia, TWIN: Transboundary Water In-Cooperation Network, to facilitate collaboration and cooperation in five river basins on five continents (the Kabul River, the Mekong River, the Jordan River, the Amazon River, and the Congo River). She has co-founded, with Michael Philipp, the Southern Vermont Regional Food System Network, to promote the creation of and full access to healthy food systems in the region. She has initiated a new program at CAPA scheduled to start in Fall 2021—Building Regenerative and Resilient Communities—that will bring together areas of study in food systems, water quality, renewable energy, social justice, and sustainable finance.
Sgorbati has been involved in the field of dance for nearly 40 years, as a choreographer, artistic director, dancer, and teacher, and continues to be a part of the dance faculty at Bennington, where she has taught since 1983. She was a co-leader of the dance program (1994-2015) with Terry Creach, Michael Giannitti, and Dana Reitz; together they fostered the making of new work, emphasized creative and collaborative process, and actively sought, supported, and incorporated innumerable guest projects and guest faculty from a wide range of cultures and artistic practices.
Sgorbati served as the dean of faculty from 1991 to 1994. She has held, since 2002, the Barbara and Lewis Jones Chair for Social Activism, an honor given for her work in creating and directing groundbreaking social programs and for her enduring commitment to social activism and social justice. She was appointed Interim Director of the MFA in Public Action in Fall 2022.